One year later: Trump, news media and Indiana County voters

An analysis

By The HawkEye staff

INDIANA — Half a small sample of Indiana County voters say they maintain a favorable view of President Donald Trump after his tumultuous first year in the job. However, a third of county voters hold a “very unfavorable” view of him.

These local voters also express skepticism about promises Trump made in an Oct. 21, 2016, campaign speech in Johnstown.

And news-media usage among these sampled county voters is fragmented in ways that do not support stereotypes of conservatives watching Fox and progressives watching MSNBC. For example, equal numbers of these survey respondents watch CNN and Fox.

These tentative findings are drawn from a project undertaken by Indiana University of Pennsylvania students enrolled in a fall 2017 undergraduate journalism and political-science course.

The experimental inter-disciplinary course – titled The Press and American Politics — examined those two pillars of public life through close reading of mainstream daily news media. (The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal offered deeply discounted student subscription rates during the fall semester. The Indiana Gazette provided journalism students free access to its daily editions and its archives.)

Much of the news studied during the fall 2017 semester was national or international in scope. In late November, however, students turned attention to local political sentiment. Absent recent local polling data, students drafted their own 15-question survey instrument. In early December, they began dialing randomized voters whose phone numbers are listed in a 2017 Indiana County database provided by Pennsylvania Voter Services, a state government office.

Students called more than 300 county voters between Thanksgiving and Dec. 15, a period during which:

  • former White House national-security adviser Michael T. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian ambassador,
  • Alabama voters rejected Republican U.S. Senate candidate and accused child molester Roy Moore, and
  • media coverage of Republican tax-cut legislation spiked. Congress passed the bill Dec. 20 and sent it to the president for his signature.

Only 12 county voters responded to the phone survey. Such a response rate is too low to allow meaningful statistical polling analysis. However, as a journalistic effort, the responses offer a glimpse into local voter sentiment that otherwise is unavailable and lay groundwork for follow-up surveys.

 

The background

In the Nov. 8, 2016, presidential election, voters in Indiana County did not give Donald Trump his biggest victory margin among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. His percentages were higher in 33 other counties than the 66 percent of the vote he gathered here last year. (Statewide, he won by 48.8 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 47.6 percent.)

Pennsylvania presidential election map, Nov. 8, 2016. Shades of blue indicate counties that went for Hillary Clinton; shades of red indicate counties that voted for Donald Trump. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

But Indiana County gave Trump a bigger victory in 2016 than it gave Republican candidates in four previous presidential elections dating back to 2000, according to data published by the Pennsylvania Department of State. The closest those four earlier Republican presidential candidates came to Trump’s victory margin in Indiana County was Mitt Romney’s 58 percent in 2012, 8 percentage points behind Trump’s margin.

In his first year, President Trump has claimed one major legislative victory – the tax-cut bill he signed into law on Friday. The law includes a provision to dismantle the 2010 Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The bills passed both houses in Congress on party-line votes.

Critics, meanwhile, have criticized – and quantified — Trump’s tendency for mendacity. PolitiFact.com, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website, recently rated as true only 4 percent of President Trump’s public statements.  (Twelve percent were rated “mostly true.”)

Of the Republican tax-cut bill, for example. Trump tweeted in October that it was “the biggest tax cut in U.S. history.” PolitiFact rated that claim false.

Trump’s overall relationship to truth has been quantified by The Washington Post,  The New York Times and BuzzFeed.

In November, The Post counted 1,628 false or misleading claims Trump had made in his first 298 days as president.

Critics respond with “whataboutism,” counter-arguments in which Trump defenders respond that President Obama told lies, too, The Post found that Trump told six times as many lies as Obama in the first 10 months of his administration.

 

Local survey findings

How did the small slice of Indiana County voters respond to Trump’s inaugural year in office and his news-media coverage? Among the survey findings:

  • Eight of the 12 telephone-survey respondents – 66 percent – said they voted for Trump, matching his countywide November 2016 victory margin.
  • Two of 12 – 17 percent – said they viewed Trump’s handling of his job as “very favorable.” Four of 12 – a third – said they viewed Trump’s handling of his job as “mostly favorable.”
  • Four of 12 – one third – said they saw Trump’s job performance as “very unfavorable.” None chose the milder “mostly unfavorable.” One was unsure; one said Trump’s job performance was “average.”

These voters were asked about Trump’s campaign promises, which he made to an audience in Johnstown on Oct. 21, 2016, two and a half weeks before the election. The promises included:

  • Building a border wall and making Mexico pay for it:

Four respondents said Trump will keep the promise; seven said he wouldn’t.

FactCheck.org, a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, reported that the border wall is a work in progress. But the cost is skyrocketing.

  • “We’re going to have the biggest tax cut since Ronald Reagan.”

Five survey respondents said Trump would keep the promise; four said no; two said they didn’t know.

A retired mental health clinic office manager in Indiana said Trump was trying to keep his promise, but opponents were blocking him.

“He is doing the best he can,” the woman said Dec. 1. “It is his opponents in the House and Senate that are preventing progress.”

One respondent, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana, said the Republican tax cut would benefit the wealthy. Another respondent, a 46-year-old bank manager in Indiana, said he didn’t know whether the tax measure would benefit him.

As for the size of the cuts, FactCheck.org reported that the Republican tax cuts do not match Trump’s superlatives.

  • Trump promised a coal-conscious Cambria County audience in Johnstown that he would “eliminate every unnecessary job-killing regulation.”

Five Indiana County voters said they believed Trump would keep the promise; seven said no.

One survey respondent, a coal truck driver from Indiana, said Trump was restoring an industry in decline from “job-killing regulations” that Trump campaigned against.

“Jobs are coming back to the coal industry,” the truck driver said. “I voted for Donald Trump because I am in the coal industry, and he’s our guy.”

However, FactCheck.org recently reported that 600 coal-mining jobs had been created by summer 2017. But that number had declined later in the summer. Moreover, the number is well below the 45,000 new coal-mining jobs that Trump falsely claimed in July.

Nevertheless, PolitiFact.com reported that Trump had taken steps to honor his promises concerning coal, and it rated Trump’s coal-mining pledges as a “work in progress.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported this month that power companies are moving away from coal as the costs of natural gas, wind, solar and other alternative energies continue to fall.

In October, the AP continued, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that the top-growing job category during the next nine years will be solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service technicians.

  • Trump promised his Johnstown audience that he would fight for every person “who believes government should serve the people and not the donors and special interests.”

Seven respondents said they believed Trump would keep the promise; four said no; one said maybe.

However, Trump’s inaugural year included actions that tend to counter his image as a populist, catering to the middle class.

For example, Trump’s cabinet “is the richest in American history,” with a collective net worth 50 times greater  than the cabinet of President George W. Bush.

Newsweek magazine this week reported that the Republican tax-cut bill passed last week by Congress mostly benefits corporations and wealthy Americans and almost certainly breaks Trump’s pledge to wipe out the federal debt.

 

NEWS MEDIA,  audience use of media and Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “fake news” produced considerable fragmentation among the dozen Indiana County voters surveyed. Questions included:

  • Your first choice for national and international news:

Most respondents cited television networks. Three said Fox News; an equal number said CNN. Two cited ABC News, two chose MSNBC.

A retired school administrator in Indiana, age 88, said she used to watch Charlie Rose, a TV news figure recently accused of sexual improprieties and fired from CBS and PBS. “But, of course, I don’t anymore,” she said.

  • Frequency of news-media usage.

Five respondents said they use their preferred source of national and international news several times a day; five said once a day.

One, a 26-year-old construction worker from Vintondale, said he consulted national and international news sources “monthly.”

  • “Fake news”: Respondents’ said the phrase meant either “nothing,” whatever Trump says it is, or, “According to him, anything that looks bad for him,” as a 39-year-old stay-at-home Indiana mother put it.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, says the term is tainted.  On Jan. 8, Sullivan wrote that “fake news” can mean a variety of things, some contradictory.

Dictionary lexicographers agree. A senior editor at the Oxford English Dictionary told Time magazine in September that the reference book has not yet defined “fake news” because the phrase lacks a clear meaning and, thus, legitimacy.

  • According to survey respondents, news organizations that produce “fake news” included:

Fox News – three nominations

CNN – three nominations

Breitbart News  – two nominations

The Onion — one nomination

All news media – one nomination

  • Respondents expressed differing amounts of trust in news media reports that Trump and his associates worked with Russians to help his 2016 campaign and to hinder Hillary Clinton’s.

 Seven respondents said they had some distrust or a lot of distrust in such news reports.

Five respondents said they have some trust or a lot of trust in such news reports.

Two said they were not sure.

 One, the 26-year-old construction worker from Vintondale, defended Trump’s involvement with Russia. “If he was already there, he can’t just pull out,” he said.

On Dec. 10, The New York Times summarized the Russia story and broke it down into three basic elements – Russian cyberattacks, U.S. links to Russian officials and representatives, and alleged obstruction of justice.

The story reported: “In late 2016, top United States intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government directed a massive cyberattack aimed at denying Hillary Clinton the presidency and putting Donald J. Trump in the White House.”

  • Respondents were asked to name their sources of local and regional news.

Seven respondents cited network television affiliates, which collectively draw the largest audience for news of any medium. The region’s network affiliates cited by survey respondents included KDKA-TV, the CBS Pittsburgh affiliate; WTAE-TV, the ABC Pittsburgh affiliate, and WJAC-TV, the NBC Johnstown affiliate.

Three respondents cited the family-owned, monopoly daily newspaper in Indiana, The Gazette. 

  • Almost without exception, respondents said local and regional news media do not produce “fake news.”

For example, a 46-year-old bank manager in Indiana said Pennsylvania news media produce no “fake news.” He contrasted the Keystone State with Alabama, where voters there were “going through this whole Roy Moore thing,” he said. “They provide more right-leaning news down there.”

Local news media supply virtually none of Trump’s news-media diet. National media — Fox, CNN, other national networks and major metropolitan daily newspapers — supply virtually all of the president’s news diet. His war on what he calls “fake news” and “enemies of the American people” is targeted almost entirely at national news organizations. 

However, one respondent, a Homer City retiree, said local newspapers were biased.

“Our newspapers are really messed up,” he said.

He did not elaborate.

Reporters for this story were IUP undergraduate journalism-and-public-relations and political-science students Gina M. Bianucci, Sydney M. Kinney, Nathaniel B. Miller, Cody S. Minich, Barkley R. Rhoat and Septima D. Simpkins.

 

Sidebar: Survey methodology

 INDIANA — Students in the fall 2017 undergraduate course The Press and American Politics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania conducted a telephone survey of active voters in Indiana County to ask their opinions of news media and of President Donald Trump following his first year in office.

The survey was prompted in part by a broad critique of news media — that they fall short on reporting from the grassroots when covering issues of concern to average citizens. In addition, public opinions of Indiana County citizens are not well researched. Finally, Trump’s first year in office was ending with widespread interest in evaluations of his job performance.

The survey was conducted by telephone between Thanksgiving and Dec. 15. Survey respondent information, including phone numbers, was provided by a 2017 Indiana County database provided by Pennsylvania Voter Services, a state government office.

The database contains public information on 50,890 Indiana County voters. (The county’s July 1, 2016, population was 86,364, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) Survey respondents were chosen by randomization commonly used for survey samples.

Student pollsters called more than 300 county voters; 12 voters agreed to be interviewed. Such a response rate is too low to allow meaningful statistical analysis or broad generalization.

However, as a primarily journalistic project, the responses offer a glimpse into local voter sentiment that otherwise is unavailable and lays groundwork for follow-up surveys as, for example, midterm congressional elections approach in 2018 – another key test of Trump’s presidency.

 

Sidebar: Indiana County’s demographic profile, Trump’s base

 INDIANA — Indiana County voters gave Donald Trump two-thirds of their votes in the 2016 presidential election. Who are they? The U.S. Census Bureau provides a look.

Education

The county’s rate of higher education is lower than the nation’s. Indiana County residents age 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher were 22.2 percent of the county population in 2016, according to census data. The U.S. figure is 30.3 percent.

Population

Indiana County’s population has declined. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 86,364 county residents as of July 1, 2016, a decline of 2.8 percent since April 1, 2010, and a decline of 3.8 percent since the year 2000.

Nationwide, U.S. population increased 14.7 percent between 2000 and 2016, according to census data.

Poverty

County residents are poorer than the national poverty rate. Census data estimated that 20 percent of Indiana County’s 2016 population lived in poverty. The U.S. poverty rate was estimated to be 12.7 percent in 2017.

Race

The county is whiter than the nation. Whites make up 95 percent of the county’s population; the white proportion of the U.S. population is 76.9 percent

African-Americans make up 2.6 percent of the county’s population; the black U.S. population is 13.3 percent.

 

 Sidebar: Survey questionnaire

Following is the text of the survey questionnaire read to telephone respondents in a survey of Indiana County voters by Indiana University of Pennsylvania students in the fall 2017 The Press and American Politics. The survey was conducted between Thanksgiving and Dec. 15:

 

Hello, I am ______________, a student in an Indiana University of Pennsylvania course called The Press and American Politics, taught by journalism professor David Loomis.

I am calling to invite you to answer 15 short questions about your views of the news media and American politics since the November 2016 election of Donald Trump as president.

If you agree to participate, your responses and your name may be reported in an article the class is preparing to publish in the award-winning online newspaper The HawkEye, published in the IUP Department of Journalism and Public Relations.

If you would like to contact my professor, I can provide you with his contact information.

                Professor David Loomis

                IUP Department of Journalism & Public Relations

                doloomis@iup.edu

                724-357-4411 or 724-357-2742

 

… or I can ask him to contact you.

 

 May I ask you a few questions, then?

Let’s begin with questions about politics and the 2016 election:

  • Would you mind telling me which presidential candidate you voted for in November 2016?
    1. Trump
    2. Clinton
    3. Other
    4. No answer
    5. Don’t know

 

  • Now, a year after his election, how do you view Donald Trump’s handling of his job as president overall?
    1. Very favorable
    2. Mostly favorable
    3. Mostly unfavorable
    4. Very unfavorable
    5. Not sure
    6. No opinion

 

Next, I would like to ask you about specific promises Mr. Trump made in a speech in Johnstown, Pa., on Oct. 21, 2016, two and a half weeks before the November 2016 election.

 

  • (paraphrase) we will build a border wall, and Mexico will pay for it.
    1. Do you believe he will keep this promise?
      1. Yes
      2. No
  • Don’t know
  1. Comment:

 

  • “We’re going to have the biggest tax cut since Ronald Reagan.”
    1. Do you believe he will keep this promise?
      1. Yes
      2. No
  • Don’t know
  1. Comment:

 

 

  • (paraphrase) We’re going to eliminate every unnecessary job-killing regulation
    1. Do you believe he will keep this promise?
      1. Yes
      2. No
  • Don’t know
  1. Comment:

 

 

  • (paraphrase) I’m going to fight for every person who believes government should serve the people and not the donors and special interests.
    1. Do you believe he will keep this promise?
      1. Yes
      2. No
  • Don’t know
  1. Comment:

 

Let’s switch to questions about news media and Mr. Trump since the 2016 presidential election.

  • What is your first choice for national and international news?
    1. Specify – not just television or the internet or the newspaper. Which network, which newspaper, which internet source?
  • How often to you use this source of national and international news?
    1. Several times a day
    2. Once a day
    3. Several times a week
    4. Weekly
    5. Other
  • Has your use of this source of news increased or decreased since the November 2016 election?
    1. Increased
    2. Decreased
    3. About the same
    4. Don’t know
  • Donald Trump has described certain national news organizations as “fake news.” What does “fake news” mean to you?
  • Can you identify one or more news organizations that produce what you describe as “fake news”?
    1. Name(s):
  • Various news organizations recently have reported that some supporters of Trump’s election campaign may worked with Russians to help Trump’s campaign and to hinder Hillary Clinton’s. How much trust do you have in those reports?
    1. A lot of trust
    2. Some trust
    3. Some distrust
    4. A lot of distrust
    5. Not sure
    6. No opinion
  • What is your first choice for local (Indiana County) and/or regional (Western Pennsylvania) news?
    1. Specify for each – not just television or the internet or the newspaper. Which network, which newspaper, which internet source?
  • How often to you use these sources of local and/or regional news?
    1. Several times a day
    2. Once a day
    3. Several times a week
    4. Weekly
    5. Other
  • Do you believe these news organizations produce what you define as “fake news”?
    1. Which ones: identify by name

Thank you.

#####

 

Sidebar: About us

The HawkEye  is a civic- and community-journalism project involving students in the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

These undergraduates report and write public-service investigative stories focused on their campus, their community and the county. The stories are rooted in the curriculum of the News Reporting classes taught by IUP journalism professor David O. Loomis Ph.D.

The students’ work has won awards from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a statewide professional and trade group based in Harrisburg. The association has honored the students’ public-service enterprise reporting, a professional practice emphasized by the online newspaper. The practice, according to the PNA, encourages publication of “any special project that exposed a problem or issue and thus benefited the public ….”

The HawkEye’s PNA awards date to 2005. Eight times student stories published in the online newspaper have been submitted to the association’s annual, statewide, Keystone collegiate-journalism competition. Each time, the IUP students have won honors.

The HawkEye encourages interaction with readers and welcomes accountability for its reporting. Contact editor David Loomis, Ph.D.,  at doloomis@iup.edu or at 724-357-2742.

 

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